I travelled to Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 to shoot a documentary for Vice, even though I had never shot a documentary before. To my small credit, I’d written some articles and spent some time in Kosovo and Bosnia, though after their respective wars had ended. I suppose I was trying to pass myself off as a war correspondent when I was little more than a rubble reporter, but in those days things were considerably less professional and substantially less financed at the magazine, and being available was sometimes, or at least in my case, all it took to get the job.
My travel companion was Henry Langston, who also had no war experience, apart from a kettling and a bloody nose during the London Riots. What Henry did have was an internship with Vice, and after much badgering they offered to pay for his flight and the flight of someone else.
He called me on the phone. We’d never worked together and I didn’t even know him. The last thing I’d written was a pop piece about a train ride with Cat Power through New Mexico. It never once mentioned RPGs, MREs, flak jackets or the Taliban, but Henry must have seen something in my soft-focus portrait of a jaded singer that belied an emboldened, war-ready hack.
Do you want to make a film about Afghanistan?
I’m a writer, Henry.
But we could try.
It’s pretty straightforward these days. The cameras do most of the work for you.
What’s the pitch?
American forces are pulling out of Afghanistan this year. They say the Taliban and Al-Qaida are defeated. We’ll go see if that’s really the case.
How safe is it?
It’s been safer, Henry said.
He explained that he’d like to visit during the traditional ‘fighting season’ in Afghanistan, between May and August. The Taliban went back to their mountain valleys during winter and launched their offensives in summer, so it would make sense for us to be there if things were, as Henry put it, “going off.”
At the time, things were going off in my personal life, too. I’d just split up with a girlfriend, was homeless (it was her place), my slow trickle of journalist jobs had dried up, and I was looking at a long summer of working bar shifts in clubs in Berlin, the city I called home. The opportunity of spending an expenses-free month or two in Kabul seemed to be, when set against a summer of couch-hopping and tip-sharing, a sensible move.
Arriving in Kabul is a shock of dust and noise. I’d met a Canadian soldier on the plane who was returning to Afghanistan with the body of his friend, now ashes in a jiffy bag – to sprinkle them from TV Mountain. He guided us past custom officers who were more interested in confiscating booze than dematerialized bodies. The soldier told us to never take an unregistered taxi, never to walk about on the streets, and no matter what, never find ourselves in the middle of a crowd. Internationals disappear in crowds, he said.
Henry and I were operating on a very slim budget. We had rented a room outside the green zone, were restricting ourselves to travelling in taxis instead of the bullet-proof SUVs that the internationals took, and rather than paying for a private bodyguard, we decided to just blend in. Around a month before we left, we started growing out our beards. Anticipating the fact that our beards would both be ginger, we decided we could pass ourselves off for Hazars or Uzbeks or the bastard love children of errant Russian soldiers. Shortly after arriving, we went to Chicken Street to buy local clothes. We would leave no doubt in anyone’s minds that the two skinny pale guys with the English and Irish accents were as pure Kabul as the Intercontinental Hotel on the hill.
Chicken Street was Kabul’s hippie mile during the seventies. Travelers from both hemispheres met here to buy carpets, emeralds, rubies and sapphires, and maybe smoke a little opium together before going north and south respectively. It was a loose, modern, open society in the middle of a country so conservative it wasn’t a stretch to call it archaic. Chicken Street’s golden era lasted until 1979, when the Russian Army invaded Afghanistan and shot out a quarter of the shopfronts. Nancy Dupree wrote a famous guide to Kabul in 1972 and left us this description of the city and the street: “tall modern buildings nuzzle against bustling bazaars and wide avenues filled with brilliant flowing turbans, gaily striped chapans, mini-skirted schoolgirls, a multitude of handsome faces and streams of whizzing traffic.”
The hippies, the mini-skirts, and the flowing turbans disappeared when the Taliban moved in. They shot out another quarter of the shopfronts on Chicken Street, imprisoned all the women, and cut off the trader’s hands. When the American forces swooped in, they shot out the remaining shopfronts, but they didn’t continue the policy of chopping off limbs, so business, rapidly and despite the considerable rubble, took off again on Chicken Street.
All business in Kabul is done at a rapid pace. Dawdle and the government might be ousted, the currency might become worthless, the street beneath your feet might turn into a smoking crater the size of a swimming pool. Doing business in Kabul means throwing all you have against the wall and seeing what sticks, and then waiting ‘til the wall collapses.
Chicken Street is about 200 meters long. It’s buttressed by Flower Street at one end and a spectacular view of TV Mountain at the other. You can drive up TV Mountain if you give the cabbie an extra ten dollars for the inevitable chassis damage, and from there you get to see how the city rolls out across the plains like a spring tide pushing back from the land. On top of TV Mountain, you can breathe deeply as it’s one of the few points in the city where the airborne fecal matter doesn’t reach. At the time, there was a statistic floating around about the air quality in the city: 90% was your standard urban oxygen, the remaining 10% was pure shit.
There’s a kid called Suleman who hustles on Chicken Street. He spots the taxis as they pull in and goes to meet the passengers and offers to be their guide. I say offer, but you can’t say no. He’ll follow you for as long as you’re not in the vehicle. He speaks about twenty languages: Pashto, Farsi, Russian, English, Japanese, Nepalese, French, Italian, German. If they’ve invaded his country or contributed to the subsequent nation-building force, Suleman has learnt their language.
How did you learn so many languages?
I listen, he says.
Listen and repeat, listen and repeat.
What’s going to happen when the Americans leave?
Goodbye Chicken Street, he says.
If I don’t go, the Taliban will kill me.
But the Taliban are supposed to be gone from Kabul. That’s why the Americans are leaving, right?
Look, here Taliban, there Taliban, everything in Kabul is Taliban.
Suleman was no older than 16. He had started working Chicken Street when he was around eight. I don’t know if he still works on Chicken Street today. If he does, he’d be 21 now, maybe even married. He was there when the first suicide bombers started targeting the street in 2004, during the boom year of 2007, when carpets sold for thousands of dollars, and when we were there, the kidnapping era. On account of the kidnapping, the rule of thumb for internationals was not to spend more than fifteen minutes in one place. Fifteen minutes was the time it would take for a phone call to be made, a crew to be organized, and a van to roar down the street and bundle you into the back. The rate of international kidnappings had been almost one a month, the year we went to Afghanistan.
We told our driver to come back in fifteen minutes and followed Suleman down Chicken Street. Chicken Street got its name from a chicken shop on the corner. Streets are named for practical rather than romantic purposes in Kabul. You can buy flowers on Flower Street; there are TV aerials on TV Mountain; when we asked our taxi driver where to buy a phone in the city, he suggested Cell Phone Street.
It’s hard to just dip in and out of Chicken Street. Tourists are rare there, especially when the city is on Level Two alert. Level Two means internationals are not supposed to leave their compounds. The entire summer we spent in Kabul, we were on Level Two. People we met wore bulletproof vests when they went to the markets. Others refused to leave their compounds and would only meet us in the comfort of their homes. Level Two was nothing to be sniffed at; the next level up, Three, meant evacuate immediately.
The traders pulled us into every store. They wanted to show us carpets with George Bush’s face on them or towels bearing Osama bin Laden’s image, or the cobras they kept in wicker baskets, or the lapis lazuli stones they told us were worth $500 dollars per kilo. Some of them sold guns. Some got by selling chai or Afghan fried chicken. Without exception, they laughed when we asked how they felt about the American forces leaving Afghanistan, now that their job is done.
There’s more Taliban today than when they came, one of them said.
We got fitted for Afghan suits while Suleman waited in the doorway keeping an eye out for the next taxi. We both went for long white shirts and trousers. I also bought a pakhol, which is the same hat Ahmed Shah Massoud, the leader of the Mujahideen, wore. It’s a small round cap that can unfold into a cloth bucket, presumably so farmers could carry fruit, or, later, so Mujahideen could carry hand grenades. I could have also bought a karakul, but that was the hat President Karzai was wearing and he was the least popular man in all Afghanistan at the time.
When the Americans go, our shopkeeper told us, Karzai will be killed.
No he won’t, his friend said, he’s Taliban too.
It was illegal to buy alcohol in Kabul but not impossible. We left the shop with Suleman alongside us and walked to a shack selling Absolut Vodka.
Is that really from Sweden? I asked.
The bottle is Sweden, the vodka is Uzbekistan.
Outside on the street, three escaped chickens ran by and the traders left their shops to corral them with newspapers and carpets. A woman in a blue burqa approached us with her hand out for money. Suleman chased her away.
It’s not good, he said, if you give them money they leave their children.
That didn’t seem fair, but then I hardly knew Afghan women and wouldn’t get to know them either. During our whole time in the country, apart from the occasional blue burqa darting through the crowd or reaching out for small change, we saw nothing but men, and most of those men had beards.
Our fifteen minutes ran up, but our taxi was nowhere to be seen.
Ne Volnyutes, Suleman said.
Don’t worry, in Russian, he said.
We smoked and waited. People stopped on the street and started staring at us. An old man asked for a cigarette and then another. You couldn’t refuse. Before we knew it, we were breaking the first rule of urban engagement in hostile territory: don’t attract a crowd. Someone started shouting. Sirens whined over on Flower Street. Another chicken broke loose. It ran straight at the front wheel of a passing Chinese motorcycle, got slapped by the spokes, careened away and kept running, faster this time, encouraged by the near miss. A guy in a turban pulled at my sleeve.
Where are you from, he asked.
Ireland, I said.
This is very dangerous, he said, where is your bodyguard?
This guy, I said, and pointed at Suleman.
The guy in the turban laughed and took my last cigarette.
We’d been standing on the street a good twenty five minutes now. Enough time for us to get kidnapped twice.
Would Vice pay our ransom, Henry?
Our taxi arrived and we got in and passed Suleman $10 through the window.
Au revoir, aufwiedersehen, ciao, Suleman shouted.
In the taxi, we got a call from our editor in New York. The Intercontinental Hotel was under attack from a team of Taliban fighters and he wanted us to go and film it. This was a fair request considering that was the reason he’d sent us out there.
By the time we made it to the hotel, a police cordon had sealed off all approaching streets. We asked our taxi to wait for us, but he said the police wouldn’t let him, so we climbed out, with our shopping bags, our new hats, our bottle of vodka and camera equipment, and started walking on foot towards the hotel. In the distance we could hear shots. They sounded like Chinese fireworks. Smoke was spilling out of the top of the Intercon. A bunch of Afghan police, young guys with bum-fluff beards and trousers that hung either too loose or too tight, stopped us.
We’re journalists, we said.
You’re not, they said.
We showed them our passes but they still said no.
Do you have any cigarettes? One of them asked.
No, I said.
When the Americans pulled out, the plan was to leave the job of law and order to these guys. Recruiting was easy. They got a gun, a uniform, a salary and free haircuts. But the joke was that after three months playing police, most recruits took their guns, their uniforms, their new haircut and the money, and ran home to rejoin the Taliban.
Henry and I climbed a hill that lead to a small footpath that opened up onto the back entrance of the Intercon. We followed the path, crouching low to avoid being noticed by the police and, also, the Taliban fighters. I focused the camera as best I could and tried framing a shot. And then something happened that happens to all war reporters, but more frequently to people who live in warzones: the thing we were looking at blew up. One second, I had a focus on the side of the hotel, the next it had erupted into smoke and dust. One wall of the Intercon collapsed onto the pathway in front of us. There were some more Chinese cracker gunshots, a few shouts and sirens, and then nothing.
Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world. Children are always visible, running through the traffic, throwing stones at birds in trees, staring at the two gingers in local costume, or loitering behind the Intercon watching the gunfight. They called us over. They’d found something lying in the grass. What we saw looked a seared bundle of cloth and liquid. They were poking it with a stick, making it spill more and more liquid, and laughing at the smell. What is it? we asked. The kids grabbed their shirts and pulled them open, shouting boom. I pointed the camera at the ground, remembering to click the Live View before the Shutter button and focused on my first ever post-suicide suicide bomber.
The police came around the back of the hotel. They told us to leave. It wasn’t safe as there were Taliban fighters loose in the area. We hailed a taxi and climbed in with our cameras around our necks and all our shopping bags at our sides. Our driver gave us a big smile. He was wearing a pakhol hat, the same one I’d bought. On the back window was a sticker, big enough to make it hard to see out of it. It said, DONT TACH MY CAR.
Shopping? The driver asked looking at our bags.
Yes, we said, something like that.
Oh, very nice, he said, Afghanistan is great for shopping.
He drove off and we both fell back into the seats and were quiet. I knew right then that I didn’t want to be there anymore and wanted even less to make a documentary about war. Henry was more bullish. He was more at home in this world. He was as brave as a small dog. The driver kept talking.
Tomorrow my friends, I will take you for special shopping trip.
Where? I asked.
Chicken Street, he said, the whole world loves Chicken Street.